Archive for the universal monster marathon Category

Classics for Halloween – The Wolf Man

Posted in halloween countdown, halloween movies, the wolf man, universal creature features, universal monster marathon, werewolves on 10/09/2012 by vincentstark

“Even a man who is pure of heart and says his prayers by night may become a wolf when the wolf bane blooms and the autumn moon is bright.”

 

For all the werewolf movies we’ve had over the years, the defining wolf-man comes from Universal’s  1941, The Wolf Man. Each and every werewolf movie since have owed less to the European folklore than the script written by Curt Siodmark. For the writer invented many of the conventions of the genre in Universal’s classic – even the rhyme that starts this article was written by Siodmark and not, as many people assume, from actual folklore.

 

The movie takes place in the fictional Welsh village of LlanWelly into which Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney Jnr) returns after being educated in the USA.  He visits a gypsy camp with village girl Jenny Williams, who is attacked by Bela Lugosi, a gypsy who has turned into a werewolf. Larry kills the werewolf but is bitten during the fight. Bela’s mother tells him that this will cause him to become a werewolf at each full moon. Larry confesses his plight to his unbelieving father, Sir John, who then joins the villagers in a hunt for the wolf. Larry, transformed by the full moon, heads for the forest and a fateful meeting with both Sir John and Gwen.

 

The reason this movie still works so well is totally down to Lon Chaney Jnr’s performance – the actor effectively portrays guilt, torment and sentiment and his wolf man, like Karloff’s Frankenstein, is  a pitiful character. The movie had originally been intended for Karloff but Chaney was cast at the last moment, and so good was he that it is difficult to imagine another actor as the Wolf Man.

There are several well known goofs in the movie – Talbot refers to Captain Montford, when the credits show him as Colonel Montford – When the wolf man is caught in a trap and falls over a log, the arm of his shirt raises, revealing a gloved hand – When Larry Talbot sits on the chair of his room and first changes into the Wolf Man, you see only his feet change. However, when the Wolf Man stands up, the pant legs ride up from his furry Wolf Man feet and you can see bare skin on his legs above the top of the “Wolf Man feet” boots he is wearing – When Maleva, the Gypsy woman, asks to see Larry Talbot’s wound from the wolf bite, he unbuttons and spreads his shirt front (with his bared chest outside the camera’s view). Talbot then proceeds directly home where he begins to change clothes. He removes his shirt to reveal that he is wearing a T-shirt underneath.

 

The film is available both as a standalone DVD and as part of the Universal’s Monsters set. The special features are the same on both versions with a documentary, trailer, commentary and a picture archive. The restoration of the transfer is up to the high standards expected from such a big name studio, and the film’s never looked or sounded better.

 

 

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Dracula V Dracula

Posted in dracula, hammer books, HAMMER FILMS, hammer horror, hammer horrors, Uncategorized, universal creature features, universal monster marathon on 08/06/2012 by vincentstark

There have been many movie versions of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, but the two versions of the story that remain most iconic are those made by Universal and Hammer and both have their fans with each camp claiming one is better than the other. Bela Lugosi played Dracula in Universal’s famous 1931 version and Christopher Lee took the part for Hammer’s full colour update of Bram Stoker’s original novel, and fans are also divided over which actor is the definitive Dracula.
The fact is that both films are such classics that it is futile to argue that one is better than the other, because each have their strengths and weaknesses. And although I prefer Christopher Lee in the role, it must be said that Lee’s performance took much from Lugosi’s earlier work and indeed no matter which actor takes the role, and no matter how hard they try and stamp the role with their own personality, there will always be something of Lugosi in their version of the character.  Everything about Lugosi’s performance is carried forward in each and every version of the story since – his looks, his manner, the way the character dresses and the way he used his eyes to suggest some kind of hypnotic influence.

Christopher Lee was a much more menacing character in Hammer’s version but the film benefited from a relaxed censorship system and full colour. When Lugosi’s version was made colour was still a long way off, and indeed sound was only just starting to make an impact. Indeed the opening lines in Universal’s Dracula, spoken by Carla Laemmle are the first words ever spoken in a  Dracula movie. It is worth noting that when Dracula was released not all cinemas had been fitted to provide sound and a silent version of the movie was also released.

 

Incredibly Lugosi wasn’t first choice to play Dracula, indeed the actor wasn’t even in the running and Lon Chaney was the actor originally cast but his death from cancer meant the studio had to find another actor. Paul Muni, Conrad Veidt and Ian Keith (who?) were all considered before Lugosi was cast for the small fee of $3,500.
It is true that Hammer’s version is easier to watch than Universals, but that doesn’t hide the fact that Lugosi’s Dracula remains an important cinematic landmark.

Lee made more Dracula films than Lugosi’s and became the character for an entire generation, but it is only his first Horror of Dracula that can stand comparison with Lugosi’s iconic movie.

So which is best? Well, dude you need to see them both.

Universal Monster Marathon – Todd Browning

Posted in Uncategorized, universal creature features, universal monster marathon on 10/09/2011 by vincentstark

Although his death was announced in 1944, director Todd Browning didn’t actually die until 1962. The premature announcement was engineered by the director himself who wanted to live out his final years in anonymity.

Browning directed a string of films with Lon Chaney during the 1920’s but it is with Universal’s 1931 Dracula and the banned movie, MGM’s, The Freaks (1932) that he is best remembered. Freaks was not seen in the UK until some thirty years after its release and even today the film is deeply troubling.Freaks told the story of a group of carnival freaks with the parts played by actual carnival performers or, as they were known at the time, freaks.

Browning was hired by Universal Pictures to direct Dracula  (1931). Although Browning wanted to hire an unknown European actor for the title role and have him be mostly offscreen as a sinister presence, budget constraints and studio interference necessitated the casting of Lugosi and a more straightforward approach.

Universal Monster Marathon – James Whale

Posted in universal creature features, universal monster marathon on 10/08/2011 by vincentstark

If Universal ruled the early horror cinema, then the undisputed king of the genre was director, James Whale. He may have only made four horror movies but each of them is an undisputed masterpiece of the genre. Frankenstein (1931), along with its sequel,  is probably the best known of Whale’s horror movies. The movie made a mega star out of Boris Karloff but for all its visceral delights there is a sombre  beauty in each and every frame.

Whale was born in 1889 into an upper middle class English family and the young man was captured by the Germans while serving during world war one and it was during his captivity that he discovered his love for the theater, after putting on a show or fellow POWs. After the war Whale studied drama and soon became an actor, set designer and director. His first success as a director was with a stage play of Journey’s End. The play was so successful that it toured in the US and Whale fell in love with the country and decided to settle there.

Whale eventually found success in the cinema but his openly gay lifestyle (unsual in the 1920’s and 30’s) led to some of his films being viewed as containing homosexual subtexts.  His refusal to stay in the closet would eventually ruin his career. Critics have stated that Whale’s homosexuality is expressed in both Frankenstein and Bride as “a vision both films had of the monster as an antisocial figure in the same way that gay people were ‘things’ that should not have happened”.

His second horror movie was 1932’s The Old Dark House in which Whale’s one time lover was cast as Horace Femm. This movie was followed up by The Invisible Man and then, what may very well be the finest horror movie ever made, The Bride of Frankenstein.

Whale directed many more non horror movies that he did chillers, and yet they have been largely forgotten and it is for his horror work with Universal that he is chiefly remembered.

Whale committed suicide on 29 May 1957 by drowning himself in his backyard swimming pool.

universal monster marathon – the invisible man

Posted in Uncategorized, universal creature features, universal monster marathon on 10/07/2011 by vincentstark

“Stop staring at me, you fool,” the invisible man tells his companion at one point in this film – I kid ye not. The script is pepper with such  humorous lines which are something of a trademark of director, James Whale. Originally Boris Karloff was to play the invisible man but after a disagreement with the studio he walked off the project. Colin Clive was also considered and indeed had not the film production been temporarily suspended, Clive would have played the part. However when the movies started up again Colin Clive was unavailable and so British actor, Claude Rains took the part.

Rains is only seen briefly at the film’s climax and for the most part of the movie his performance is by disembodied voice alone. And what a vocal performance and Rains together with some clever special effects creates the illusion of an invisible mad man. Once nice touch is with Una O’Conner playing essentially the same character she played in Whale’s Frankenstein and providing suitable hysterics.

Black body suit against a black background was used for this shot

 

The special effects were cleverly done – for the most part wires were used to hurl things about, but the scene where the invisible man undressed was done by Claude Rains wearing a black body suit beneath his clothes, while the scene was filmed against a black background. The shot was then superimposed onto a shot of the location where the action takes place – this technique was groundbreaking for the time, and thrilled audiences which helped to make the film one of the studio’s biggest money earners of the year.

Another excellent horror classic from Universal.

 

 

Universal Monster Marathon – Werewolf of London (1935)

Posted in Uncategorized, universal creature features, universal monster marathon on 10/06/2011 by vincentstark

This film has been completely overshadowed by the 1941 remake which starred Lon Chaney Jnr. as the doomed Larry Talbot who finds himself turning into a werewolf during each full moon. It’s a pity because Werewolf of London deserves rediscovery – Jack Pierce provided the make up for both movies and although his work here is far more basic than his definitive work on the  remake, it is nonetheless eerily effective, even to a modern audience.

Werewolf of London holds the distinction of being the first sound film made of the werewolf legend – there had been at least three silent movies dealing with the legend, with the most well-known being the 1913 Canadian production, The Werewolf.

When the movie was originally released it was considered too similar to Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde with Fredrick March which had only been released three years previously, and it was something of a flop but over time the film has become to be regarded as an imaginative classic of the genre. Initially Jack Pierce’s make up was identical to that used later on Lon Chaney for The Wolfman, but Henry Hull felt his performance was inhibited by the lack of facial movements, and so a more minimalistic make up was selected, which was something of a mistake, as the make up, although effective when in shadow, looks bland in comparison to later efforts. Henry Hull also plays a less sympathetic character than Lon Chaney, and this results in the audience finding it difficult to empathise with the doomed botanist who has been cursed with the bite of the werewolf.

The sounds of the werewolf howling in the movie is still effective today and was created by recording the sound of an actual Timber Wolf and mixing this in with the howls of actor, Henry Hull.

It’s a pity that Werewolf of London is one of those movies that has been obliterated by a definitive remake, because it has many merits and is essential viewing for any serious student of the genre. Without this movie there would have been no Lon Chaney Jr’s The Wolf Man, and it did prove that Jack Pierce was correct with his original make up. The werewolf in this movie often looks like a man who hasn’t shaved for three months, rather than the half man, half beast he is supposed to represent. Still it’s a great movie and Henry Hull dead serious performance makes the whole thing believable.

The film is available on DVD, doubled with 1941’s The Wolf Man as part of the Universal Monsters Series, and as always the discs come with a wealth of special features, though most of the emphasis is on the Chaney movies. It’s an excellent transfer of the original negative to digital disc though and I can not recommend this release highly enough.

Universal Monster Marathon – The Creature

Posted in universal creature features, universal monster marathon on 10/03/2011 by vincentstark

The Creature from the Black Lagoon, the 1954 creature feature that introduced the Gill-Man and it’s 1955 follow-up Revenge of the Creature – the latter which featured a small role by the then unknown Clint Eastwood.

It’s interesting to note that prior to starting his remake of King Kong, director Peter Jackson was actually considering doing a remake of the Creature from the Black Lagoon. That he opted for King Kong instead is telling, since both movies rely on a retelling of the Beauty and the Beast story in a fantasy/horror setting.

The Creature from the Black Lagoon, at age 15 million years old, is the last survivor of its species – a mixture of amphibian and man. When his habitat in the Amazon is disturbed, he attacks those who try to capture it.  Unlike Frankenstein and Dracula who had their roots in Gothic literature, the gill-man was an all original creation by Universal Pictures. Actor Ben Chapman played the creature in the land scenes and  Ricou Browning played the creature for the underwater scenes –  but neither actor achieved the same level of name awareness as other stars of the Universal horror movies, names such as Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff. Maybe because the Gill-Man required a suit rather than extensive and inventive make-up techniques. That’s not to rubbish the suit, though – the creature looks stunning and has been referenced many times in pop culture. The Gill-Man was also the first screen monster known to teenagers in the 1950’s, since earlier creations like Frankenstein, the Wolf Man and The Mummy had long since finished their cinema runs and not yet made it to television.

The DVD of The Creature from the Black Lagoon, part of the Universal Creature Features Collection – my edition comes as a double pack, alongside The Mummy. Watching the film these days on a decent set up and you’re actually getting a better viewing experience that original cinema audiences. Back in the day they wouldn’t have had the crisp digital picture and booming soundtrack. The disc comes in 2.0 Mono but put through a surround system really delivers. And the black and white transfer in incredibly crisp.

The disc is also heavy with special features with a great all original documentary and a fascinating commentary from film historian Tom Weaver.

But what about the movie?

Well modern viewers will either love it or find it too corny – but if you can sit back and allow yourself to become lost in the movie, a great experience is waiting. The acting style is very much of its period, bigger than modern screen acting and almost theatrical, the locations used like a stage set. That the film was largely made on a Universal back lot doesn’t show and the Amazon of the movie truly looks like a dark and mysterious place. Most of the underwater scenes were filmed in Florida because of the clarity of the water.

One famous scene where the monster swims unseen below the lovely Julia Adams is very daring and almost simulates lovemaking. The scene in excellently out together and it is this scene maybe more than any other that humanizes the Gill-Man.

Lead actor, Richard Carlson is very affective as the 1950’s square-jawed, heroic scientist and there’s a lot of this character in Indiana Jones and indeed both Spielberg and George Lucus have both mentioned the influence of this movie on their creation. Spielberg’s Jaws also owes a lot to  all time classic and the early appearances of the giant shark are presented in the same way as Gill-Man in introduced – first we get the odd shot of a webbed hand or a fin before eventually seeing the full magnificent creation.

The original movie was in 3D and it’s a pity we can’t see it this way today – hopefully one day a 3D version will be released onto DVD or Blu-Ray.

Revenge of the Creature which hit cinemas a year later – by the same director, Jack Arnold it doesn’t quite match the original but it’s a good enough movie. The law of diminishing returns seemed to have applied even way back then.

It’s basically the same plot – creature gets the hots for attractive young woman and goes on a hormone fuelled rampage. Only this time the creature is at loose in the big city.

As mentioned previously Clint Eastwood turns up early in the movie – he may have been a future superstar but back then he was unknown and his small scene is unremarkable. It, like the original movie, was also shot in 3D but the current DVD release is the standard version.

There was also another movie – 1956’s, The Creature Walks Among Us – as of yet I’ve not seen this movie, but have just ordered the box set from Amazon so expect a review here soon.

The original is the best but both movies hold up well (indeed the ecological subtext is perhaps even more relevant today)  and the creature is truly an important part of fantasy cinema. They sure don’t make em like this anymore…more’s the pity.